Sunday, 7 December 2014

Covers and context

I'm not a frenetic Bruce Springsteen fanatic -- I own exactly two of his albums: Born to Run and Magic,  which almost bookend his long career.  I enjoy his music.

Last night, PBS screened a tribute concert to the Boss.  It was a fundraiser as well as a testimonial, so the audience was clearly rather wealthy, in a not quite comfortable contrast with the lyrical content of the songs which are almost always about the struggling, the dispossessed and the marginalized.  Still, someone has to come with money…

Since I don't follow Springsteen's career that closely, it was an interesting survey of his work with reinterpretations by skillful musicians.  I particularly liked Emmy-Lou Harris' version of "My Hometown", and Elton John's surprisingly powerful rendition of "Philadelphia".

However, there were two moments that stopped me in my tracks and they both featured songs with which I was not familiar.

The first features Mavis Staples, so I knew it was going to be good.  I gather this song became a bit of an anthem after the events of 9/11.


Springsteen wrote "American Skin (41 shots)" partly in response to the shooting of a immigrant named Amadou Diallo in 1999, and has been criticized, threatened, and even boycotted by police officers for performing it. Jackson Brown's performance of this song took place a year before the recent events in Ferguson, Missouri.  It was stunning hearing this last night in the wake of the outcry following the acquittals in Ferguson and New York, but then it's a stunning interpretation without the context.

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